Rugby: Otago down on their knees

By Brent Edwards

Fetu'u Vainikolo sums up Otago's difficult season. Photo / Getty Images
Fetu'u Vainikolo sums up Otago's difficult season. Photo / Getty Images

Just a decade ago, Otago was arguably the strongest province in New Zealand rugby.

The Highlanders hosted the Super 12 final against the Crusaders before a capacity crowd of 42,000 at Carisbrook and Otago supplied nine of the All Black squad for the 1999 World Cup.

The year before, the Highlanders had almost beaten the Blues in the semi-final at Eden Park and Otago had been a runaway winner of the national championship, averaging more than 60 points in its last six games.

Between 1990 and 1998, Otago won the NPC twice and was runner-up three times as it snapped at (and occasionally bit) Auckland's heels. The Highlanders made the playoffs four times in the five years between 1998 and 2002.

How times have changed. The Highlanders have not threatened to make the semi-finals in the past seven years while the fortunes of Otago have plummeted - beaten semi-finalist in 2006, seventh in 2007, 10th last year and 10th going into the last round today.

Rugby in the region is in crisis. Otago is in the doldrums, just out of the relegation zone, and the Highlanders have been underwritten by the New Zealand Rugby Union for the next two years.

After that, the future is unclear. The new Dunedin stadium will be opened in time for the 2011 World Cup and the big questions for 2012 are whether the Highlanders will still be afloat and whether Otago will still be in the premier division.

Otago used to be replete with high-spirited youngsters who had come to Dunedin to study, play pranks and rugby - the likes of John Timu, Marc Ellis, Jamie Joseph, Arran Pene, Mike Bewer, Taine Randell, Josh Kronfeld and Anton Oliver. But professionalism has hit Otago hard. Rugby players can play and be paid from an early age - meaning the old Otago ploy of identifying talent, enticing it to university study plus a rugby career, has gone by the boards. The University of Otago is thus no longer a rugby production factory and Otago can no longer siphon off the best talent from Hawkes Bay and other provinces.

Otago teams used to be built around camaraderie, continuity and commitment. In 1991, for example, 11 of the regulars became centurions for the province and the other eight played more than 50 games.

This season, by contrast, only Tom Donnelly, Jason Macdonald and Kees Meeuws have played more than 50 matches for the province.

Player recruitment, retention and development are areas of major concern. New All Black Ben Smith was the only homegrown Dunedin player in the Highlanders this year and that is an indictment of the Otago academy system. Otago has a dismally poor record in player recruitment in recent years - Nick Evans and Craig Newby were the only notable successes - and there have been too many failures, notably the troubled Tasman winger, Lucky Mulipola.

Otago, once a mecca for aspiring rugby players, has now become a last resort, where players go when they have exhausted other options. Some Dunedin clubs demanded changes to the Otago Rugby Football Union board this year but, when the dust settled after the annual meeting, former All Black (and Otago coach) Wayne Graham was the only new face.

Steve Martin's reappointment for a fourth season as coach this year was curious given that Otago has progressively deteriorated during his tenure.

There is no doubting his work ethic, or rugby knowledge - he was a resolute little halfback for Otago during his playing days - but the bottom line is that his teams have not been winning nor playing attractive rugby.

Public interest is at an all-time low. Carisbrook, the most vibrant venue in New Zealand rugby a decade ago, now echoes hollowly on match days. Membership of the Otago Rugby Supporters Club, more than 800 in 1998, has dwindled to fewer than 500.

Jamie Mackintosh, the Southland captain and Highlanders' vice-captain, says he finds it much more stimulating playing in front of rowdy crowds in Invercargill than at an almost deserted Carisbrook.

Mackintosh and the Highlanders' captain, Jimmy Cowan, reportedly had to be persuaded to remain with the franchise; not an encouraging sign.

There is a future for Otago in the premier division and, by extension, the Highlanders in the Super 15, but only if there is an overhaul of the administration, coaching and playing staff and if there is more efficient recruitment and retention of players.

Many long-time Otago and Highlanders' fans have lost faith in the administration and the team.

The empty stands and terraces are testimony to that and the current board and administration have been accused of being insular and defensive - hence the calls for change and new brooms to address issues like player development and the connection with fans.

Everyone, administrators, coaches, players and the academy, needs to examine their roles and how they can do better.

The success of Southland is a ray of hope. The ability of Otago to pick up the broken bits and put them back together is the key to the future of the Highlanders.

Some egos may be bruised in the process but that would be a small price to pay for Otago regaining its place among the big boys of New Zealand rugby.

- Herald on Sunday

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